Legal Press & Updates

“In the UK, courts have prohibited environmental protesters from putting forward defenses based on “necessity” or “proportionality”. They have also forbidden protesters from mentioning climate change, thereby preventing them from explaining the reasons for their protest. Courts have held convicted environmental defenders who disregarded this prohibition in “contempt of court” and imprisoned them for up to 8 weeks.” [p.17]

“Courts should not impose limitations on environmental protesters’ right to a defense, including to explain their motivation for engaging in protest, and should take into account these motivations in their decisions.”

State repression of environmental protest and civil disobedience: a major threat to human rights and democracy Position Paper by Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, February 24

“I was … alarmed to learn that, in some recent cases, presiding judges have forbidden environmental defenders from explaining to the jury their motivation for participating in a given protest or from mentioning climate change at all.

It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant’s action, and how a jury could reach a properly informed decision without hearing it, in particular at the time of environmental defenders’ peaceful but ever more urgent calls for the government to take pressing action for the climate.”

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention Statement following visit to the UK, January 2024 Download the full text of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)

Jury Equity–a Changing Climate?

Professor J.R. Spencer

By Court 1 at the Old Bailey there stands a plaque which reads:

“Near this site WILLIAM PENN and WILLIAM MEAD were tried in 1670 for preaching to an unlawful assembly in Gracechurch Street. This tablet commemorates the courage and endurance of the jury, Thomas Vere, Edward Bushell and ten others, who refused to give a verdict against them although locked up without food for two nights; and were fined for their final verdict of Not Guilty.

The case of these jurymen was reviewed on a writ of habeas corpus and Chief Justice Vaughan delivered the opinion of the Court which established the right of juries to give their verdict according to their convictions.”

The background to this famous event were the Conventicle Acts,1 enacted after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to enforce religious conformity. They banned “conventicles”—religious gatherings of more than five people except under the rites of the Church of England. On the basis of this legislation a group of Quakers led by William Penn were barred by soldiers from their meeting-house in Gracechurch Street and held their meeting in the street outside: for which William Penn, the preacher, and William Mead, a member of the congregation, were prosecuted, the indictment alleging they did “unlawfully and tumultuously assemble and congregate themselves together, to the disturbance of the peace”. Though clearly a breach of the conventicle legislation the gathering created no real threat to the peace and so did not constitute the common law offence of unlawful assembly, as alleged. Notwithstanding this, the Recorder of London, presiding at the trial, directed the jury to convict. But the jury, despite extensive browbeating from the bench, refused to convict.2 For this the Recorder fined each juror 40 marks—

1    The Conventicle Act 1664 (16 Chas. 2 c. 4) and the Conventicles Act 1670 (22 Chas. 2 c.1).
2    An account of the trial appears in 6 St. Tr 987; a summary in J.F. Stephen, History of the Criminal Law of England (1883), I, 373-375.
Professor J. R. Spencer Excerpt from Archbold News Issue 9, 30 November 23
Dr Clive Dolphin from Defend our Juries and professor Richard Vogler on ‘Law in Action’ with Joshua Rozenberg.

On Thursday 9 November, the eminent legal scholar, Professor John Spencer CBE, wrote an opinion piece for the Times, offering more invaluable support for the Defend Our Juries campaign: “Defying a judge is not always contempt of court – Jury equity could be seen as an important constitutional safeguard”

He argues that on a proper interpretation of the law, courts should giv[e] protesters some chance to explain the reasons for their actions” and not punish “those who try to make the jury aware of [the principle of jury equity]”.

He concludes by quoting E.P. Thompson in a stinging rebuke to those undermining trial by jury: “There are worse offences to the body politic than contempt of court; and these are contempt for our constitutional history and contempt for the people of this country.”

Defying a judge is not always contempt of court The Times, 9 November 23 [This article is behind a paywall]